It’s possible that Rupert Thomson’s dreamlike worlds showed up a few years too early, before the critics began loosening their buttons over the hot possibilities of genre. The British novelist has operated just under the critical radar, eluding the flying crosses awarded to David Mitchell, Scarlett Thomas and David Peace -- yet sharing this trio’s curious and uncompromising nature. His books are preternaturally convincing when read, yet sound preposterous when reduced to loglines. Consider Thomson’s last novel, “Divided Kingdom,” a futuristic scenario in which the United Kingdom is divided into quarters, with the population rearranged into the four classic temperaments: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic.
Thomson’s eighth novel, “Death of a Murderer,” involves a seemingly straightforward premise: Billy Tyler, a drifting middle-aged constable presented as one of “society’s dustmen,” is assigned a 12-hour shift to guard the body of a child murderer closely resembling Myra Hindley, known for the famous British Moors murders. The teeming throngs outside the hospital mortuary desire no respect for this dead monster (there isn’t a funeral home for miles that will take her), nor does Billy’s wife, who bombards Billy with text messages and in-person entreaties to return home.
But Thomson has an altogether different notion of death. Billy’s watch unfolds into a series of flashbacks similar to those in the Ambrose Bierce story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Billy himself is a living corpse, squeezing out the few drops of coffee left in his cup while revisiting a passive adult existence. He is a man who comes close to violence many times but who can unleash his fists only upon the refuse bins. As a man in the hospital waiting room puts it, “Who really knows how far we would go if the circumstances were right?”
Denied a paternal figure in his youth, Billy befriended a shifty yet charismatic thief named Raymond Percival, decidedly less honorable than his Arthurian namesake, who nearly drowned and starved his pal (“Food breeds laziness,” says Raymond. “It breeds complacency. Food’s dangerous.”) when Billy tried to bond.
And if that isn’t enough, there’s his father-in-law, Newman, a financially successful man determined to belittle Billy at every opportunity.
Thomson’s world is a desiccated wasteland of plastic, vending machines and menacing poplars “black as the wrong kind of magic.” A hotel room’s “brownish-pink grab-rails” resemble “something you might find inside a body.” The constable is lost in a miasma of false existential promises (Billy takes a sergeant’s exam because he has to, not because he wants to) and an array of women he can’t emotionally connect with.
This internal tension sustains a taut psychological portrait that also serves as a searing indictment of masculinity. Thomson surrounds Billy with several paternal figures who crackle with energy but possess deadly flaws of their own.
Newman may be a success, but it comes at the cost of collecting a casino worker as a sexual trophy and ridiculing Billy for not getting a piece of the action (“You ever had a Korean?”). A former girlfriend’s father may be an energetic captain of industry, but he has also molested his daughter. By the time Billy meets up with this man, the old dog is vitiated, surrounded by a library of nonfiction, sporting trophies and “paintings of racehorses and battleships.” Because Billy is also a father -- his daughter, Emma, has Down syndrome -- the novel’s daring question is whether his shortcomings will be passed down the bloodline.
Thomson’s prose is a seductive sea of ellipses, commas and abbreviated nomenclature. He gives nicknames to the constables. (Billy is nicknamed “Scruffy.”) The murderer is unnamed. Susie becomes “Sue” after she marries Billy. Throughout the trajectory of Billy’s life, women have offered him stones, symbolic and literal. Venetia, another of Billy’s girlfriends, slips an eight ball into his pocket. His wife offers him two mystical stones for protection against the murderer’s evil. Later, when stoned in a more hallucinogenic sense, Billy takes a nonconsensual liberty with his wife.
When Thomson maintains this symbolism, his prose sparkles with great interpretive possibilities. He has an interesting preoccupation with sartorial colors -- his minor characters are often clad in blue or gray suits. But, at times, the book reads like a pedestrian thriller that is beneath Thomson’s talents. His metaphors range from the inventive (“The air seemed taut, almost rigid, as if the entire hospital had taken a breath in the early hours of Friday morning and was still holding it”) to the needlessly repetitive (“the top half of his back was curved, like the shell on a tortoise”). Of Billy’s early days with Sue, Thomson writes, “He used to run home from work to see her. Actually run.” With phrasing this maudlin, one expects the melodramatic lilt of violins. But that isn’t the topper. The book’s greatest misstep is the murderer’s ghost making frequent appearances to talk with Billy about his problems.
If “Death” sometimes lacks the razor-sharp precision of Thomson’s previous novels, its ambitious structure and close psychological study provide a compelling case for why the unlived life is truly worth examining.